January 27, 2017
Following on the heels of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, now seems a perfect time to address the First Amendment. Let’s dissect how it was written and what it means.
The following is a transcription of the First Amendment to the Constitution in its original form.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
First, we are entitled to a freedom of religion. This is commonly referred to as the Free Exercise Clause.
Essentially, I am free to practice my religious beliefs without consequence from the government. Since its inception, the clause has been tested, often with controversial results. The Supreme Court waffles back and forth on its intent and reach.
Addressing the intent, James Madison spoke passionately about this section of the amendment.
“It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage, and such only, as he believes to be acceptable to him.”
Colonists fled Britain in part because of oppressive religious laws. The founders of this country hoped to ensure all Americans remained free to worship the God of their choice.
Unfortunately, one of the greatest challenges is balancing an individual’s right to practice their beliefs in a secular society. For instance, Reynolds vs United States (1978) banned polygamy stating there is a difference between a religious belief and an action. The court stated citizens cannot excuse themselves from the law because of their religion.
Secondly, no laws shall be made to tread upon an individual’s right to freedom of speech.
It’s interesting to note how people will spew hatred, slander and vulgarities at others under the umbrella of “free speech.”
Clearly, we all are entitled to speak our mind (though exercising some restraint is always best). However, the courts in Schenck v. United States (1919) say freedom of speech does not cover words that incite actions that may harm others. Also, in Roth v. United States (1957) the court prohibits distribution of obscene materials.
Regrettably, under West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), the courts proclaimed citizens are free not to salute the flag under the freedom to NOT speak. Another equally divisive decision, one that surely gets my blood boiling, is the courts protection of the burning of the flag as symbolic speech (refer to Texas v. Johnson, 1989, and United States v. Eichman, 1990).
Thirdly, no laws shall be made to infringe upon the rights of the press.
The press has the right to publish information without interference from the government. Laws exist to prevent the press from acting irresponsibly or maliciously, including laws regarding libel, obscenity and sedition.
As a member of the media, I have a duty to accurately record the activities of our government and our people. As we disseminate information, the public is capable of deciphering if the government, the legislative arm and the courts have extended its reach. We also serve as a historical record for our local communities and our people.
The press holds local governmental agencies accountable through what are known as Open Meetings Law. The Freedom of Information Act, which the press commonly uses to gather information, allows the public to access documents and information.
Fourth, the people of this country are free to gather in peaceful demonstration.
While this portion of the amendment does allow citizens the right to publicly assemble, it does not allow the people to riot, engage in violence or incite violence.
People gather to have their voices heard. Some of the greatest changes in history have come through peaceful demonstration. Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat on a bus which forced a change in regulations forcing black citizens to sit in the back seats. Ezell A. Blair, Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan), Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil, and David L. Richmond sat at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and asked to be served. The was part of the Civil Rights Movement, and the men insisted they be allowed to eat at the same restaurants at the same tables at white citizens.
Throwing rocks through a Starbucks window and burning businesses makes a statement, too. But not one that can be understood and transformed into meaningful action. It reads “I am angry and willing to break laws and harm others.”
Lastly, the people have the right to seek redress of grievances.
This allows citizens the right make a complaint against the government without fear of reprisal. It also offers people the ability to seek assistance from government without fear of punishment.
The intent of the First Amendment is to establish the rights of the people and limitations of governmental powers. Through the years, the courts have issued opinions regarding the meaning and extent of the law. However, the basic premises remain and should be regarded as the foundation of civil rights.
The onus lands at citizen’s feet to understand their rights and obligations under the law. Misinterpretation on our part does not extend the laws in our favor.
Apathy towards our rights and responsibilities will surely lend itself to governmental authority stretching beyond its intended reach.
Laurie Chapman publishes Political Broad bi-monthly and takes an informative, opinionated peek at the functions of government. If you have a suggestion for the author, email her at email@example.com or call her at 208-983-1200.